Tying Into Circuit Breakers

Published : 8th Aug. 2007

I am tying into a warehouse circuit breaker on Monday, and I want to know if any Gaffers / DP´s or Electrics have any advice for me, I go on a tech scout tomorrow down in San Diego and from what I've been told thus far there is a 110 volt and a 440 volt breaker. I will know more info tomorrow on it, but I am curious to know what you all think about tying in, or should I really push to not go through with it...

Thanks
Jeremy Schonwald
LA/SD Gaffer/Electric


>>I am tying into a warehouse circuit breaker on Monday, and I want to >>know if any Gaffers / DP´s or Electrics have any advice for me,

Jeremy

There are so many issues with tying into a circuit panel--where do I begin?!

I will try to give you some ammunition here to convince production to get you a generator.

1/. Set Lighting Technicians are not Electricians. Our responsibility and training is from the "Buss Bars" out. Liability wise only a Licensed Electrician or IBEW Electrician is authorized to tie in power.

2/. CAL OSHA regulations will show you that tying in temporary power into an existing circuit breaker panel and not securing the panel completely is in violation of safety codes. Also, if you are tying into the main feed of a circuit breaker panel, and not into individual breakers, you are now violating electrical and safety codes and it is usually impossible to close the panel with five pieces of wire coming out of it. It is completely against regulations to not completely close the panel. Also, those panels are rated for the loads of the circuit breakers, if you add "movie light" loads, you will be overloading the rated capacity for the panel. Also if you "tie in" to the main feed for a panel, you have eliminated a "main breaker" or safety switch between all of your equipment and the main power source---very dangerous and very illegal.

3/. You are personally responsible for all of this if anything goes wrong or if any one gets hurt or killed.

Years ago I used to tie into all kinds of panels for all kinds of shows. It’s not hard to do, and it will provide the electricity you need, usually. However, I have realized that there is no reason to do this, and the cost of a generator is a small bit of insurance to avoid disaster, injury, death, and or fines. Do it right or don't do it. That's my advice.

Mike Ambrose
Gaffer
Los Angeles


>>I will know more info tomorrow on it, but I am curious to know what you >>all think about tying in, or should I really push to not go through with it...

As at least one other member mentioned if you do not feel comfortable working in the box the answer is NO. The 440 panel is out unless you have a transformer to bring the voltage down. You have to know what kind of load exists on the panel to start with. The other option is to hire a real electrician to do the tying and then let you plug your extension cords after that ( yes I do like to think of 2/0 as an
extension cord!!). We carry breakers for all of the major panel types for tie in's of the 60 - 100 amp range. This saves you having to work on hot buss bars.

Richard Bakos
President
Studio One Inc.
25833 State Road 2
South Bend, In 46619-4736
VOICE 574-232-9084
FAX 574-232-2220
www.StudioOnesb.com


To Michael Ambrose's outstanding advice, I would add this:

Have production check with their insurance provider to see if they are covered for damages resulting from a tie-in performed by an unlicensed electrician. This will generally bring them to their senses. In some jurisdictions, there may be also be criminal penalties as well as fines, law suits etc., if any third party is injured as a result of work performed by an unlicensed electrician.

Of course, fines, lawsuits etc., will also result from damages caused by a faulty tie-in performed by a licensed electrician as well, but you won't be on the hook.

If you're going to be at the same location, and you need a tie-in for an extended time, thus making a generator and operator a comparatively expensive proposition, you can get a "Temporary Service Drop". This is essentially a electrical meter, a disconnect and panel dedicated to your use. This is what is normally used at construction sites while awaiting installation of the permanent service.

Most large electrical contractors can handle the whole business for you, including the necessary permits, and liaison with the electric company.

I think a great deal of this has been covered in the archives.

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP


Tying in! I thought that was illegal and out of fashion. As a gaffer in the 70's I did it hundreds of times.

So all you old gaffers out there let's hear some "tie in horror stories." Like the time Chuck brushed against both the hot bar and the box with a screw driver and threw enough sparks that it pitted his glasses (lucky he was wearing them). Or the time I had tied in, in a pool pump house with a wet floor, and as I was unscrewing Tweeko cable connections, hit a high screw with my hand, and got knocked on my ass.

It's a miracle that nobody died.

Marty Mullin
DP
Los Angeles


>>So all you old gaffers out there let's hear some "tie in horror stories."

I've been lucky, or good maybe, no lucky! There was a Gaffer here in Atlanta that just about killed himself back in the Eighty's. I'm not sure just what he did but there was a loud bang and the power went down in the house. When the crew ran in to check on him it was pitch dark in the room but they had no trouble seeing him. He was on fire! He spent time in the hospital but has come back and is still enjoying a fruitful career... as a Key Grip.

Tom Burke
Atlanta, Gaffer


I believe the tie-in has fallen out of fashion for very good reasons; we use lower power-consumption instruments for most jobs, generators are fairly cheap and reliable for the larger ones, and it’s just not worth the risk of injury in any case.

My Tricos are still in the kit, but more of an antique curiosity than a tool, something to frighten the young kids on the crew. I did almost all the tie-ins on my shoots for many years; never made sparks myself, but I’ve sure seen others scare the hell out of everyone. We always tied a rope around the waist of the guy tying-in so we could pull his flaming, dead body from the mains...

Best regards to all,

Leo Ticheli
Director/Cinematographer
Birmingham/Atlanta


>>thus far there is a 110 volt and a 440 volt breaker. I will know more info >>tomorrow on it, but I am curious to know what you all think about tying >>in, or should I really push to not go through with it...

The way you worded that suggests that you aren't too confident about tying into a mains supply like that. The rewards of getting a clean feed are high. You know that you've got X amount of current available for your lighting, without worrying if some other load on the same circuit is going to push things over the limit. You also know the condition of your distribution cabling as opposed to just assuming that the integrated wiring in the building is going to tolerate a much higher current demand than normal.

Building cabling isn't always wired as it should be, and sections of under-rated cable or dodgy joints can cause undesirable effects. (Notably fire.)

If the tie in is done correctly by someone appropriately experienced, then it's a good way to go. If the premises are used for filming a lot, then a bit of dedicated power distribution gear would be an ongoing bonus.

If you've NOT worked with high current distribution gear like this, then the main pitfall is the huge currents that can flow if industrial distribution gear is shorted out. If a cable is mis-terminated or inappropriate protection is used (Or NOT used!) Then huge currents can flow causing significant damage or injury. That's where the benefit of using a "real" electrician comes in, since they will be able to assess the general current availability from the existing feed and loads, then connect appropriately.

n the other hand, if you've got an independent generator supply, then you don't have to worry about the building power at all, but it may be more expensive and inappropriate for long term use.

I should add that I'm UK based and America has a completely different set of rules for electrical contracting, so this info might not applicable in some contexts.

Clive Mitchell
http://www.bigclive.com


Leo Ticheli wrote:

>>We always tied a rope around the waist of the guy tying-in so we could >>pull his flaming, dead body from the mains...

Just for fun. I remember fondly, the blood curdling scream of my gaffer as he tied into the box in the kitchen of a Lake Tahoe restaurant we were shooting in. The janitor had decided this would be a good time as any to hose down the kitchen floor. The gaffer is fine (although, he's a sound mixer now).

Bob Torrance
Former DP


I remember my gaffing days when I had a custom clap system which consisted of a pair of medium sized vice-grips with an 8' pig-tail of #4 cable welded onto the handle.

I made 'em myself and used them about 50 times...This was great in situations like older boxes and areas where the fit was too tight for typical tri-co's. Of course, this usually meant doing the tie-in totally hot, which is always a very scary thing.

Lots of rubber bits and rope and standing on an apple box with my belt wrapped around my waist with a spotter on stand-by.

Those days sucked!

Cheers,
Jeff Barklage, s.o.c.
US based DP
www.barklage.com
view reel: www.reelsondemand.com


Quoth Clive :

>>You also know the condition of your distribution cabling as opposed to >>just assuming that the integrated wiring in the building is going to >>tolerate a much higher current demand than normal.

Amen, brother

At the very least, you need to know what the current and anticipated load is on the service before you turn on your lights - breakers are often rated for peak loads but cable put in based on a certain percentage use - may not be able to handle full load for a long time...sometimes service wire is big enough but transformer also feeds air conditioners or something else and transformer fries if you continuously load the panel to the max...if building has aluminium service cable you are just plain screwed - it cannot handle the load it was rated for and heats up, which, in turn raises the resistance, which in turn heats it up, etc etc

(any New Yorkers remember aiming fans at the distro panels at the
Douglas House?)

If there are free breakers in the panel and you are only taking a little bit and you can tie onto an existing breaker or put in your own breaker, then , legal issues aside, you are in reasonably secure world...(see all previous provisos and take them to heart!)

If you are tying onto the main lugs or the main disconnect, you really need to know what you are doing, especially if you have to work hot, and you should STRONGLY consider all of the safety. legal, and liability issues even if you are an old pro and know exactly what you are doing...

At the very least, get the landlord to hire an electrician to do the tie in which protects you against at least two of those three issues…Bear in mind that if it is an industrial space it might be subject to peak metering, in which case, your heavy use of the power for a day or two could raise the daily rate to the building to its highest usage for each day of that billing period...if you producer is liable for the electrical costs, that might alone pay for the generator

Mark Weingartner
erstwhile gaffer
LA based


Jeff Barklage wrote....

>>standing on an apple box with my belt wrapped around my waist with a >>spotter on stand-by.

Wow.. real scary, our three phase is 415v or 240v to neutral. It has a habit of vaporizing or blowing bits off you. Because we have double the voltage potential, Electrical hazard is a big deal.

Everyone is taught from a child the risks of electrocution. In Oz, only an Idiot would attempt to wire to a mains supply without the proper training. Mains taps were common place, but with the availability and relatively low cost of silenced generators, there isn't the resistance from Prod. Managers/Producers to getting a Generator, even on low budget shoots, unless there is an existing three phase power outlet along side where you will be shooting.

Sure we still put in 'hot wires' High Rise buildings etc. but I avoid it if I can.

Regards

Graham Rutherford
Gaffer
Australia


You guys seem to have a very odd idea of tying in!

My idea of tying in is taking a legitimate connection either from a circuit breaker or from an appropriate high current connection point.

The circuit breaker connection can be done live, although it's certainly frowned upon, but doing something like connecting to live bus bars is just asking for trouble. Maybe it's because I'm a fully time served installation electrician that I consider a worst case being the temporary (or permanent) connection of a new fused isolator to the bus bar with the power OFF. If the need isn't sufficient to merit this disturbance then go with a generator.

If a temporary flying connection is made to the bus bars, then the cables must be short double insulated tails taken from proper crimps or clamps, out through a single hole with proper grommet edge protection, then taken directly into an over current protection device before going further. After use the exit hole must be blocked appropriately to maintain the integrity of the bus bar chamber.

Live bus bar work is definitively one of the biggest sources of large area electrical burns, and you really don't want those.

Clive Mitchell
http://www.bigclive.com


One further comment about why things go so badly wrong when you inadvertently short really high current supplies.

The initial explosion of current causes vaporisation of the metal contacts, so the ball of flame that has exploded in front of your eyes is composed of ionised air and metal plasma. Besides the fact that the skin burns it causes are metal laden and thus rather nasty, the arc carries current too, so if you are grounded, you are both being burnt and electrocuted simultaneously. Worse still is that if there are other phases present, then the arc will engulf them and short them out too. This can result in monstrous electrical explosions in bus bar chambers, that buckle the bars and copper plate everything in the vicinity. If synthetic fabrics are being worn they may be fused to the skin.

Sorry to sound as if I'm trying to scare you, but it's the way it happens. You can work live without incident for years, then BANG! It's too easy to become the "old hand" who lets familiarity breed contempt with horrific results.

Now go and check my website for other things you shouldn't do with electricity.


Clive Mitchell


Vice grips!

Ah well, it might have been scary, but I bet you got a great adrenaline rush.

As a professional electrician I would have attended your connections armed with a fully inflated paper bag to burst loudly as soon as you got your grips on the live feed. A blank firing prop gun could have been quite dramatic too, or what about a strategically placed Le Maitre silver-stars pyro cartridge.

(Or if I was really bad, an arena sized maroon.)


Clive Mitchell


I remember people in Chicago tying in to the third rail on the El track.

There also was the (don't remember his name, I'll make one up) Harry O'Brien Memorial Tie-In Kit -- which consisted of three long pieces of cable with bare ends tied to rocks. Throw it over a power line... and you're tied in.

Jeff "shoots in the dark, so never worries about these things" Kreines


>>If a temporary flying connection is made to the bus bars, then the >>cables must be short double insulated tails taken from proper crimps >>or clamps, out through a single hole with proper grommet edge >>protection …

Welcome to our world in New York for years and years and years - almost always clamping onto the main lugs of a hot sub-panel in the hallway of a high-rise office bldg or the basement of a store somewhere...skill, luck, and steady hands. More likely to clamp onto the lugs with Trico clips or Anderson clamps than to grab the buss bars - they are generally too close together and hard to grab - but I worked with an industrial electrician on a college campus (former aircraft carrier master electrician) who, with GREAT precision, drilled and tapped a hot buss bar...

When I am done with the job I am on, I will put 5 or 6 good tie-in stories on the cml nostalgia site.

Mark Weingartner
erstwhile gaffer
LA based but global


>>I remember people in Chicago tying in to the third rail on the El track.

Did it on the NY subway - 5 Lowell D lights in series...story to follow later.

Mark Weingartner


Never trust that an old building is wired properly for your tie-in. We blew out a 100+ year old building on Houston St. in NYC a few years ago and discovered a 50amp fuse hidden in-line on the wrong end of the box. And just a few weeks ago we killed an entire block in a small town in Rhode Island that we later were told was "prone to brown outs." Nothing wrong with our tie-ins though.

Mitch Gross
NYC DP


Jeff Barklage says :

>>I had a custom clap system which consisted of a pair of medium sized >>vice-grips...

Jeff, oh my God! Live long and prosper brave friend. Glad that you're shooting now.

I ending my tying-in days once I had a child.

Chris Mosio
DP/Seattle

 

Mitch you wrote:



>>And just a few weeks ago we killed an entire block in a small town in >>Rhode Island that we later were told was "prone to brown outs." >>Nothing wrong with our tie-ins though.

So you're the guys.

Mitch, I hope you don't mind, but I passed your email on to Vito "Knuckles" Marrapese, whose semi-annual very high stakes poker game was interrupted by a mysterious blackout during which someone helped himself to the pot. Since it was his game, "Knuckles" was required by protocol, tradition, hospitality, and extreme threats to him and his family to make good on the losses. As a result, Mr. Marrapese would very much like to speak with you.

"Knuckles" is convinced that this black out was no co-incidence. However, I'm sure you'll have no trouble putting Mr. Marrapese's mind at ease that the black out was in fact unintended, and that it had nothing to do with his card game.

I don't think you'll be getting any email from "Knuckles"; he's kind of an old fashioned guy, who believes in the personal touch, which I'm told is how he acquired his colourful nickname. Once you get acquainted, I'm sure you guys will really hit it off, so to speak.

BTW, "Knuckles" is kind of shy, but enjoys taking his friends for rides in his car. However, if I were you, I'd try to arrange for any meeting to take place in a very public area.

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP


Mark Weingartner writes:

>>Did it on the NY subway - 5 Lowell D lights in series...story to follow >>later

Can't wait for the Lowell D story

I remember track workers on the NYC subways using work lights made up of a wooden paddle with 5 light bulbs in series that they would clip onto the rails wherever they needed light. I haven't seen them in a while.

Fun with electricity.

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP


Mark Weingartner writes:

>>Did it on the NY subway - 5 Lowell D lights in series...story to follow >>later

Let me guess... Style Wars with Henry Chalfant? I'd love to hear some stories about that one.

Best,

Anders Uhl
cinematographer
ICG, New York


>>Let me guess... Style Wars with Henry Chalfant?

yup

Mark Weingartner
LA


The tricky bit being the long strands of swarf that come off the drilling. Only one needs to make a brief electrical bridge to initiate something nasty.

--
Clive Mitchell
http://www.bigclive.com

 

Jeff Barklage says :


>>I had a custom clap system which consisted of a pair of medium sized >>vice-grips...

I hate to say it, but the vice grip system while not being overly safe sounds like a nice solid connection.

--
Clive Mitchell


Mark H. Weingartner writes :

>>it on the NY subway - 5 Lowell D lights in series...story to follow later >>(won't do that again)

I'm guessing that 500V DC is pretty standard around the world for electrified rails?

To be quite honest, in the same situation if there was very poor access to "normal" power, I'd probably consider the same. That might be sheer laziness though. Also note that fuses and breakers for DC are entirely different beasts from the AC units. There's a much greater arc quenching gap. HRC (High Rupturing Capacity) fuses would be a reasonable choice here.

On the Manx electric railway they tend to tap their station lighting off the 500V overhead lines with three 240V lamps in series. For film use, with a couple of 240V halogens in series, the lamp life would be shorter, but the colour temperature would be a bit higher. DC rules out inductive ballasts completely.

(Oh look DC. That means you can throw your lights in a swimming pool full of actors doesn't it?) :P

--
Clive Mitchell


Well I elected not to tie in to the breaker after all, we prep'd yesterday and saw a very minimal amount of a lighting package, then scouted the location, and found not much of a need for a large amount of power, as well as the building having only 20 amp breakers, with a couple 30's scattered throughout an old bread factory.... But id like to say thank you to those who posted some great incite, and say "huh?"

To those who posted some very odd emails sort of related to my question.

Jeremy Schonwald
Gaffer/Electric
LA/SD


I have heard a number of horror stories regarding tie-ins:

Arcing the box in a studio that also houses all of production's computers.

Feeling and seeing the vibrating of the electrical panel as a thunderstorm rolls in and the electrons get very excited.(This I experienced first hand), but what has always given me a minor heart attack is the pager or cell phone on vibrate that goes off just as you go for the main lug with a trico.

Sean Kirby
Director of Photography
Blue Eye Films
206.779.2583 cell
206.932.0347 home


Clive Mitchell writes:

>>I'm guessing that 500V DC is pretty standard around the world for >>electrified rails?

I think the French TGV operates at 25kV AC. The insulation required by that extremely high voltage is one reason why Amtrak in the US could not use TGV technology.

I just read something about some European locomotives that are set up to run on different voltages so that trains can cross borders without having to change locomotives. The various systems were something like: 25 kV AC, 15kV AC, 3,000 V DC and 1,500 V DC.

25kV / 240 = 104 that's a lot of bulb to wire in series ;o) I'd also take a pass on making the final connection

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP

 

Clive Mitchell writes:


>>I'm guessing that 500V DC is pretty standard around the world for >>electrified rails?

A train buff just corrected me :

The Amtrak Acela does operates at 25kV 60Hz AC. It runs on 25kV AC north of New Haven, 12kV 25Hz AC, south of New Haven to NYC, and 12kV 60Hz AC South of NYC.

The 25 Hz is a remnant from the New Haven RR, an earlier predecessor of Amtrak which had it's own generating station.

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP


Marty,


Wow, this is going to be a long line.


I can tell there are a lot of "silverbacks" .
"Dallas", the TV show.
The 80's...OK.


I was persuaded to best boy electric.
Tied in to a club level 21st floor box.
4k winds up under a "fountain".
At first it was just a "hiss"...then.
I'm sure we've all used the Styrofoam cup insulator trick.
As best I can tell, you are going to need a VERY LARGE Styrofoam cup. Effects could not have done a better job than our department. Didn't bother with bull switch. Simply ran to the tie in and jerked it from the lugs.

Wrapped early.

The following year, I was gaffing some night establishing shots for the same series.


The wonderful, late Leonard Katzman walks past and says" Hey Murray, I've just about got that carpet paid for." A great man.. the industry misses him and needs more like him!

Murray K. Campbell
Dallas gaffer


Brian Heller writes :

>>I think the French TGV operates at 25kV AC. The insulation required >>by that extremely high voltage is one reason why Amtrak in the US >>could not use TGV technology.

I just read something about some European locomotives that are set up to run on different voltages so that trains can cross borders without having to change locomotives. The various systems were something like : 25 kV AC, 15kV AC, 3,000 V DC and 1,500 V DC.

>>25kV / 240 = 104 that's a lot of bulb to wire in series I'd also take a >>pass on making the final connection

Most of our Scottish trains work with 25kV overhead lines. I think it's mainly the ground level rails that tend to carry the lower 500V for safety.

25kV isn't a good idea for location lighting, but it does mean that you get hot re-strike on everything.

--
Clive Mitchell


A number of light rail and subway systems use 600V, I believe...though the voltage can vary with load, time of day, etc. NYC is nominally 600VDX (or was in '83)

Mark Weingartner
LA based


Mark Weingartner writes :

>>A number of light rail and subway systems use 600V, I >>believe...though the voltage can vary with load, time of day, etc. NYC is >>nominally 600VDX (or was in '83)

Singed eyebrow crowd anxiously awaiting Lowell D story.

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP


Yes, can you believe it?

People are still asking set electrics to tie-in... I haven't done one since my NYC days and everyone I knew back then was doing it...I'm sure some still are. Those were the crazy low budget film days. Yet, just recently, I had someone trying to talk me into do one for a gig I was on...The box was a nightmare, so hell no, no way. Maybe I would have done it when I started about 6 or 7 years ago but now, I guess with age comes wisdom.

When you really think about it and all that can go wrong, it's really not worth it. What amount of money is going to make you feel better when your heart stops working.

"Best horror story: Doing a tie-in in 2 feet of water... As you can see, I'm here and nothing happened but... Boy was that dumb.

Oh and I had a friend of mine who did a tie-in and half the block went dark. Funny, he just grabbed his tools and went home."

Maurice Jordan
Gaffer
(323)656-7224


>>People are still asking set electrics to tie-in...

There is something odd to me about the title of this thread. It seems as if we are really discussing tying-in onto live mains NOT tying-in onto breakers.

Any electrical service box can be tyed-in relatively safely by utilizing breakers. So a 100A or larger breaker can be installed into a 100A, 200A or larger service with bare ends of feeder cable tapped into the appropriate breaker. It is a temporary condition that may be legal or not depending on local codes. It can be done but it is discouraged because a generator is safer, but when necessary it can be done safely.

Jim Sofranko
NY/DP


Well I ended up biting my tongue and tying in to the breakers after all... had no problems what so ever, I shut the siemens 110v 200 amp break down, pulled off panels face plate, and twiko clipped my way into the breaker.... I didn’t have any problems, just was a little unsure about doing that for the first time.

Thank all of you for your stories, some of you were a great help, others were a little odd but generally were a laugh.....

Jeremy Schonwald
LA/SD Gaffer/Electric


Jeff Kreines wrote :

>>Harry O'Brien Memorial Tie-In Kit -- which consisted of three long >>pieces of cable with bare ends tied to rocks. Throw it over a power >>line... and you're tied in.

Gee sorry I missed most of this thread. This Tie-in sounds even more deadly than the set I made using Big Spring Clamps to clip 12 gauge solid core wire to the Bussbars, insulating with Gaff tape. Ah, but I was young and foolish, and couldn't seem to get anyone else to use these things to tie-in.

I was happy to dismantle them, very happy.

Although I've still got my Manhattan Air Conditioner Splitter box (turns a 220 outlet into two 110 outlets,) only way to get power in many Manhattan apartments.

Steven Gladstone
New York Based D.P.
www.gladstonefilms.com


Jeremy

I hope it was your first and last time you have to do that. There might have been some laughs posted here, but electricity is serious stuff. Tweekos are illegal, and what you did is unsafe.

I am sorry you didn't take our advice.

Michael Ambrose
Gaffer
Los Angeles



 

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